Homicide – Boots and All
The toddler (Corey) had little to do with the circumstances surrounding his birth. He also had little to do about choosing his parents a young mother on child support and a father who disappeared about the time he was born. Moreover, he had nothing to say when his mother decided to form a de facto relationship with a violent, drunken teenager whom he was obliged to call 'Daddy'! But such events were all predestined to deal him a short and violent existence a life of fear and unbearable pain. It may have been the pain that persuaded him to abandon his 'will to live', or was it, perhaps, the actions of a merciful God who intervened to spare him further agony ...
When the tormenter (Aaron) first saw the boots, he probably thought to himself, "What a strong pair of leather boots; just what I need. I won't stub my toes wearing those beauties! As a welfare recipient, he could barely afford the cost, nonetheless, he went ahead with the purchase. But even after taking possession of them, he hadn't reckoned with all the hidden costs – the likes of which he could never have imagined ...
To hear him tell the story, you would suspect that the boots were possessed by something evil, and that any person wearing them would suffer. Without a doubt, he certainly paid dearly, I suppose his costs were almost immeasurable. That's why even today, after three troublesome years, he still bears that cost!
I’ve been told that 1994 is the 'Year of the Family'. But who's looking after our families? A church elder once told me that the strongest thing we possess in a civilised community is the basic family structure. Destroy that and you destroy the very fibre of our coexistence and decency. We might well ask, "Do the powers that govern and control us actually contribute to this ideal today?"
When I was a young man, having children out of wedlock was discouraged to such an extent that most illegitimate babies were offered for adoption soon after they were born. Such children were generally well cared for by their (well- selected) adoptive parents. Many were thus enabled to go to school longer than their non-adopted counterparts; quite a few became professional people.
From my police experiences of 'child abuse' cases, few of those adopted children were physically abused by their 'parents', even less by their stepfathers. Can we honestly say the same thing about the new generation? During the last decade, we have well and truly educated the public about domestic violence and there are more refuges and child-welfare officers than ever before. We also have more unmarried mothers and it's almost a certainty that their offspring will be subjected to some control by a 'new daddy' or, worse still, by a new daddy who frequently is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. Of course, it's far more complex than just that. Obviously, there are only a small number of substitute fathers that have actually abused their children. But compared with yesteryear, these percentages have increased alarmingly; and I might add, that they have more than doubled the police inquiries that followed.
According to the sole-parent pension records, we have experienced quite a leap in their numbers since the early seventies. For example, the number of people receiving this pension rose from 57,872 in 1973 to 224,489 in 1983, and climbed to just under 300,000 by the end of 1993. (Ref S.M.Herald, 17.6.94). In any event, with this obvious breakdown of the family unit, new doors have been opened to violence and child abuse that could hardly have been imagined at the turn of the century. Such tragic events upset every decent person, including the investigating officers who are seldom told the truth during their initial inquiries. Even as I am writing, I am being reminded of the vulnerability of these children by yet another radio broadcast about a toddler being beaten to death by his mother's de facto husband.
Although the case history that follows may appear to be a typical example of such crimes, the real horror is magnified by the fact that the poor little mite was literally kicked and bashed to the point of death in front of his own helpless mother.
The first inkling of trouble, especially child abuse, was probably experienced by a friendly neighbour of the victim just after midnight on Wednesday, 5.6.91. She and her husband were woken at their South Wollongong home with cries for assistance from the child's mother (Lisa) who had been banging on their front door.
It was soon gleaned that the distressed woman wanted the occupants to ring an ambulance for her infant son (Corey, 28 months) who had fallen out of bed and had somehow injured his head in the process. Lisa hastily added , "Tell them he lost consciousness for a short time and he's less than two and half years old."
Such was the impact of this disturbance that Lisa's neighbour immediately dialled the emergency number "000"; and then, because she was a schoolteacher, with a rudimentary knowledge of first aid, rushed next door to see if she could help.
Officers working at the Illawarra Ambulance Station were more than a little concerned about this midnight call so two vehicles - the intensive care ambulance and a general back up unit - were dispatched to the address given. After all, it was hardly a routine assignment. But what worried the paramedics most at this point was how any toddler could have had an accident at 18 minutes past midnight. What were the parents doing at the time? Could their officers be heading towards an unknown domestic situation?
Within minutes, the ambulance teams, with lights blazing and sirens blaring, entered the street. The intensive care unit arrived first. As the paramedics hurried towards the victim's house, they were met by a very distressed woman holding an equally distressed child in her arms. There was no mistaking the underlying panic and fear in the faces of those involved, and there was little time to waste asking a lot of questions. But experience had taught these men that there was a lot more going on than 'what meets the eye'! The little boy too sensed the panic and fear around him as he sobbed and screamed; or could it have been that he alone realised the full extent of his injuries?
The toddler was carefully examined. Although his breathing appeared to be laboured, everything else seemed okay. Moreover, the child had no obvious bruises or abrasions and was now responding to those around him. Lisa told the ambulance men that she had found him in bed unconscious and going blue in the face after he had hit his head on the side of the bed or the wall.
The mother and child were escorted to the rear of the ambulance while the backup team spoke to neighbours, and to Lisa's de facto (Aaron) who was holding their other son (12 months) in his arms. As Corey was settled in the rear of the ambulance the paramedic discovered a swelling and haematoma (bleeding under the skin) behind his left ear. A normal torchlight test on his eyes showed his pupils contracting but they were sluggish. The child's mother, together with a senior ambulance officer, climbed into the back of the intensive care ambulance and they sped off to Wollongong Hospital. Before they had gone very far, however, the toddler began having periods of apnoea (breathing ceases).
The driver requested assistance from their backup unit and the hospital was alerted about their plight. After this, the ambulance stopped for a moment as the second paramedic came to their aid. At this point, the little boy was intubated (plastic airway inserted) and then ventilated. But even then, his condition deteriorated before their arrival at hospital.
At the local hospital, Corey was found to have a large bruise behind his left ear, with a depressed occipital skull fracture and a fracture of the left temporal bone. A CT scan of his head revealed subcutaneous haemorrhage on the left side. By this time, of course, he was unconscious and required mechanical ventilation. The prognosis was bad.
To save the boy, a surgeon of neurology was urgently required to relieve pressure building up in his brain. He was transferred (at dawn's first light) by the Care Flight helicopter to the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, where a surgical team was standing by to perform the operation.
Although Corey had pulled through the emergency operation, he was still in bad shape and medical staff were pessimistic about his chances. As the day wore on, Corey remained comatose in the Intensive Care Unit. By this time, information concerning a possible 'child at risk' situation was received by members of the Child Protection Team at the Prince of Wales Hospital. As the toddler's injuries were far from consistent with the mother's story, welfare officers were called to look into the matter. By the end of the day, the officers were convinced it was a police case and so, finally, detectives at the South Region Child Mistreatment Unit were notified.
Meanwhile, Lisa and Aaron had travelled to Sydney that morning by train and were billeted in the hospital's emergency quarters known as Coulter House.
Inquiries Begin ...
Detectives Graeme Wheeler and Stephen Boyd from the Child Mistreatment Unit arrived at the hospital later that day.
After becoming fully aware of the severity of the boy's injuries, they questioned the child's mother and her de facto husband in regard to the circumstances surrounding the accident.
Sergeant Wheeler recorded the parents' versions of the events in his official notebook which was duly signed by both parties. On this occasion, Lisa altered her story slightly: the gist of it was that the toddler had been climbing on cupboards in the kitchen - apparently looking for biscuits - when he slipped and fell to the floor, losing consciousness. Aaron had returned home about this time (after spending most of the day and night drinking at a nearby hotel with his cousins) and had given the boy mouth-tomouth resuscitation which apparently had revived him for a short time.
Although Corey's clothing (pyjamas and nappy) appeared to be soiled only in the usual manner, Detective Wheeler, nevertheless, took possession of them for a scientific examination. A short time later he was summoned by a welfare officer to return to Coulter House as Lisa apparently had another version of the accident to tell him.
There's no doubt about it, getting the whole truth in cases like this is a tricky business, aptly described in the old verse: 'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!'
On this occasion, Lisa told Graeme that just before midnight she thought she had heard a noise outside so she opened the front door and walked out onto a small porch to investigate. Corey, she said, followed her outside and she picked him up. But he struggled or slipped from her grasp as she stood near the edge of the porch and he fell, head-first, onto rocks in the garden. This variation to her story is typical of cases where the parents are suspected of wrongdoing. As the full extent of their child's injuries becomes more apparent, a feasible scenario has to be concocted to avert any suspicions of their involvement.
On the return trip to the police station, detectives debated the question as to whether it was appropriate to return immediately and take possession of Aaron's clothing - especially his boots. But it was argued that there was still no real proof of child abuse: there were no obvious signs of a beating and no apparent transfers of blood or fibres that could be examined. It was one of those occasions when police must hasten slowly.
Although there didn't seem to be any medical evidence to suggest Corey had suffered similar accidents, it was nevertheless necessary to check the records to see if either Lisa or Aaron had been in any previous trouble. Although Lisa had nothing to worry about, Aaron's antecedents painted a clear picture of a young man growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. At 16 years of age (1988) he had fronted the bench in a country town to face four charges, namely: Stealing by Finding, Unregistered, Uninsured Motor Vehicle and Having Goods in Custody. For those crimes he had been given a Self Recognisance of $10, to be of Good Behaviour for one year.
However, before the second year had passed he was locked up again and charged with Assaulting Police, Resist Arrest, Malicious Damage and Offensive Language. The 'big' deterrent handed out at this point was a further 12 months’ probation and a fine of $80. Seven months later he was locked up again - for swearing - but the charges were withdrawn. As he was only 19 years old in 1991, his record spoke volumes about his character.
Little Corey's condition gradually deteriorated. EEG tests performed at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to evaluate his progress were disappointing. The night sister told police that his clinical condition worsened from 8 p.m.. Further tests were carried out on his reflexes which showed some hopeful responses; unfortunately, his kidneys stopped functioning just after midnight. It was all downhill after that. Although drugs were administered, things got worse and he passed away at 18 minutes past six that morning. Somehow, it appeared significant that he had survived exactly 30 hours (to the minute) from the time the emergency call had been recorded at the Ambulance Station.
Murder Inquiry Follows
The following morning, as police were preparing to interview persons from the Wollongong address, they were informed of Corey's death; this change of events altered the direction of the inquiry considerably.
Lisa's neighbours who had called the ambulance station were spoken to and statements taken. Apart from the facts already mentioned, the couple had two very interesting points to bring to the attention of Detective Wheeler.
The lady of the house (Mrs X) told police that after calling the ambulance she went next door to assist in any way she could. However, the two ambulance teams arrived very quickly and she merely became a spectator from that point on. What particularly caught her eye that night was the fact that Corey's mother had a large bruise on her cheek, and her de facto was standing distant and detached from his wife during the paramedics' preliminary examinations. The young man, she said, never offered the poor woman a comforting hug or even a shoulder to cry on during the whole ordeal. He was also distant and quiet when she drove the pair the following morning to a nearby station so that they could catch a train to Sydney to be near their son.
Mr X, corroborated his wife's statement. He also added a new dimension to the case when he told police that, as Corey was being lifted into the ambulance, he was certain that the unfortunate child struck his head on the side of the ambulance wall or a shelf near the rear door.
Later, after speaking to medical staff at the Wollongong Hospital and the ambulance personnel involved, the detectives returned to Sydney. However, another detective, Dallas Stirton (attached to Bulli), was back soon afterwards to interview a most extraordinary witness.
There is an old proverb that goes: 'When one door shuts, another opens!' This, of course, occurs quite often in our line of business, and it happened again in this instance.
Apparently the surprise witness had become interested in the case after hearing of the boy's plight from a relative who worked at the Wollongong Hospital. The man told police that he too travelled by train to Sydney on Thursday (6.6.91). During the journey he became aware that Lisa and Aaron were seated nearby. Aaron, he said, had his back to him and was frequently speaking in a raised voice to a woman sitting in the seat opposite. He was certain it was them because of their conversation and the underlying threats made by the young man.
Briefly, the witness recalled the events thus: As the short journey commenced I started to read a book but found myself distracted by the young man's tone of voice and the manner in which he spoke to the woman with him. I can't remember his exact words, but I rapidly became aware that the young man was speaking about a small child that had been injured. I heard him say, "The worst that can happen will be that he'll be in a wheelchair or else he'll be a vegie case.
The young woman sitting with him remained silent, or said very little at all. I remember that this man spoke in short bursts and after each outburst would be quiet for a couple of minutes. His female companion, however, seemed preoccupied nursing a baby. After this I recall the young man saying, ''This is the first time that I've hit him. I've never hit him before." He fell silent again and the woman made no audible comment. After a short break, I then heard him say, ''Look, I'll get him a paddling pool or a swimming pool and he can swim all he wants." Again the woman made no audible reply. In his next burst of conversation he said, "I don't want my name used."
Then he added, ''I could have just come home." The woman said nothing. A few minutes later he said, " Look, I'll never do it again. I'll make it up to him. I'll take him everywhere I go." The woman sitting near him still remained mute. After this, their conversation revolved around the woman going to the hospital on her own and he would go elsewhere. During that time he again reiterated, "I don't want my name used - don't bring me into it."
The surprise witness went on to describe the young couple quite accurately, right down to Aaron's large black boots which, he added, had been placed quite deliberately on the train's seat, near Lisa.
Following Corey's death a postmortem was conducted at the Glebe mortuary on Saturday morning and it was arranged for our scientific officer (Barry Doherty) to attend and act as an observer to corroborate any statements tendered. This turned out to be the right move as further supporting evidence of child abuse was uncovered.
Most significant was the extent of the fractures involved. Another extraordinary surprise came in the shape of an unusual bruise discovered on the back of the toddler's head after his hair had been shaved off. The bruise had a very distinct pattern which Detective Doherty immediately connected to Aaron's big leather boots. Could this, he reasoned, be the weapon or thing that dealt the poor child the 'coup de grace'? If this scenario was true, what force was used to leave such a distinct impression?
ERISP (Electronic Record of Interview with Suspected Persons)
Meanwhile, as the postmortem slowly progressed, Detective Wheeler and others were busying themselves at Redfern, carrying out audio interviews with Lisa and Aaron. However, apart from recording their conversations on tape, very little was achieved as the pair stuck firmly to their latest story of Corey falling onto rocks in the garden.
Nevertheless, the suspects were gradually painting themselves into that proverbial comer where escape was limited and so the customary 'run-around ' was planned. Aaron was invited to accompany the detectives back to Wollongong to point out the garden area where the child had fallen, and other relevant places. Aaron agreed to this proposal and later that day, detectives, armed with a video camera, returned to the alleged accident scene with their main suspect to photograph him as he reconstructed his version of the events. Further questions were asked at this time and relevant details were recorded in Graeme's official notebook.
On their return trip to Sydney, Detective Wheeler requested Aaron to hand over his prized boots for a scientific examination. Although he was actually wearing them at this point, he complied with little argument. (Graeme later supplied him with a pair of his own joggers to wear.)
A special meeting was arranged with the forensic pathologists attached to the Glebe Mortuary in respect to Corey's death which, for want of a better name, was called a 'Murder Meeting'. It took place the following Tuesday and the video taken of Corey's home and front garden was shown to the doctors in an attempt to answer the puzzling question as to what action or thing had caused his head injuries.
During the course of their reconstructions, police raised their suspicions about the possibility of Corey actually having been kicked to death, and produced Aaron's boots as Exhibit A. But our men of medicine, at this time, rejected this assumption, saying that Corey's injuries were totally consistent with the mother's story about the child falling onto rocks - even though there was an absence of supporting evidence such as scratches or abrasions. (Physical evidence emerging later had them seeing the issue in a slightly different light.)
Meanwhile, police made numerous inquiries over the following weeks and also interviewed several family members in an attempt to discover further circumstantial evidence that might persuade their suspect to confess. It was established at this time that Lisa had originally met Aaron at a friend's home in her home-town, Coffs Harbour, when Corey was about six months old. They were both in receipt of social security benefits and so had ample time to get to know each other.
After several weeks of courtship, Lisa became pregnant and Aaron moved in with her at her parents' home in Coffs Harbour. After Lisa's second son was born (Aaron junior) in 1990, Aaron senior experienced difficulties in getting along with Lisa's father. As a consequence of this he eventually decided that he needed a change of scenery: a week or so before Corey's death he had gone to Wollongong to stay with Lisa's sister who was married to his cousin. Lisa and the children followed him down there only three days before Corey was injured.
Scientific Police Discover a Silent Witness
Detective Doherty had taken several photographs of Corey's body, and in particular of the strange-looking bruise at the back of his head. As time progressed, he critically examined Aaron's boots to see if he could match any part of the bruise with any section of the boots. Although it was a slow and painstaking task, the rewards were simply amazing: a portion of the stitching on the instep section of Aaron's right boot, matched exactly the outline of the bruise on the back of the infant's head. Detective Doherty then obtained an inked impression of the boot's stitching, followed by a transparent 'overlay' of the same impression. When this plastic, see-through copy was placed on top of a matching-sized photograph of Corey's unusual bruise, the evidence suddenly became overwhelming.
This exciting breakthrough was just what the detectives needed. The overlays were immediately shown to the forensic pathologists at Glebe. Although these doctors soon agreed that Aaron's right boot had played more than a minor part in the assault, they nevertheless refused to accept it as the actual murder weapon.
At this point, Professor Hilton said to Graeme, "The overlays fit perfectly, but you've still got a problem: the boot didn't kill him. You're looking for a flat surface!"
Well, murder weapon or not, it was more than enough for Detective Wheeler, so plans were made for Aaron's arrest and final interview.
Detectives travelled to Coffs Harbour on 2.9.91 and located Lisa who, by this time, had severed her ties with Aaron and was residing at a women's refuge. Graeme Wheeler again sought the truth from her; this time she told a far more credible story. Lisa also said that she had made up her mind to tell the whole story when the matter went to court. During the taking of her final statement it was ascertained that Aaron had assaulted her on numerous occasions; as their relationship continued, the attacks had become more violent. In fact, she had been quite afraid of him.
Apparently, shortly after Corey had been injured, Aaron had threatened Lisa with further violence if she were to tell police the truth. Later, as they travelled to the Prince of Wales Hospital, he reinforced his threats by saying that he would kill her parents, or even their own son, if she talked. And at Coulter House, when Aaron became aware of the severity of Corey's injuries, he told Lisa to alter her story to include the rocks near the porch.
Aaron Partly Confesses
The next day, police located Aaron at another address in Coffs Harbour and he was taken into custody. He was shown the overlays at this time. And although quite vague about all the circumstances, he soon tearfully confessed, not only to assaulting the boy, but also to making the subsequent threats to Lisa and her family. He was then charged with murder and lodged in a cell. From the information available at that stage, the following denouement emerged:
Aaron's night out - drinking with his cousins prior to attacking his wife and stepson - seemed hardly relevant to the investigators as they recorded the facts. However, as the details of that particular evening surfaced, it suddenly dawned on the detectives that his behaviour on the way home was especially damaging to his case and clearly established his sobriety and state of mind. Moreover, right in the centre of Aaron's troubles were those big black evil boots – perhaps an omen of things to come. I believe this chapter is best described by a witness who was disturbed and then harassed by Aaron and his cousins as they left the hotel.
"Just before midnight on the 5.6.91, I heard the sounds of people walking in the laneway near my fiat. They seemed to be yelling and screaming about something and I went outside to investigate. I saw about seven persons in the laneway and they all appeared to be pretty drunk. They were making quite a racket as they kicked our garbage tins about. At this point I went inside and called the police. I then walked outside onto my front steps. I had a torch in my hand and as I flashed it about I saw a big man urinating close by. He was over six feet tall and was wearing an orange-coloured sloppy joe which had the number '88' in large white letters across his back. He turned towards me and in a threatening tone said, 'You want something mate?' He swore and was real aggressive so I decided not to speak to him. Then his mate came running over and they both came towards me. I was afraid they would attack me so I went inside. I had barely got the door closed when they started kicking at it.
A few seconds later I heard a crash as someone kicked out a glass panel near the bottom of the door. I remember seeing his black boot and lower leg protruding through the shattered glass. After doing this they ran off. When the police arrived a few minutes later I waved them down and told them what had happened. Soon afterwards, they drove back and I saw that they had the big bloke, who was wearing the sloppy joe, locked in the back."
Real Culprit Escapes
Police later discovered they had arrested the wrong man. It should have been Aaron, but his cousin was arrested because he was wearing the sloppy joe. There's no doubt about it: 'the devil takes care of his own'! In any case, this unfortunate twist of events spelt out more than just trouble for a tiny little boy called Corey who was sleeping peacefully just a few kilometres away.
Aaron hailed a cab and although fairly intoxicated and in strange surroundings managed to enlighten the driver about the route he had to follow to take him home. At this point, one could easily have imagined him in a somewhat jovial mood, especially after having dodged the law like that - but not Aaron. He banged on the front door, swearing and cursing, until Lisa let him in. She had been watching TV in the front room whilst Corey and his half-brother slept on a mattress near her chair. Within seconds of entering the house, Aaron ordered them to bed and an argument quickly developed in the bedroom. Apparently her cries upset the children, particularly Corey who was now screaming as he cowered at his mother's side. In a fit of temper, Aaron lashed out with his fists and boots and Lisa was knocked to the floor with Corey falling behind her.
According to Lisa, it was at this point that Aaron deliberately kicked Corey in the back of the head, stunning him instantly, and he tumbled onto his back. (Some police likened this act to a footballer making a 'round-corner' kick.) Then Aaron grabbed hold of the poor little mite by the ankles and swung him like a sack of flour straight up over his head and then down again, literally throwing the infant head-first on the floor. It was a brutal and vicious assault, equally as dangerous as smashing in his skull with a baseball bat; it immediately rendered him unconscious. But for all of that it was over as quickly as it had begun.
Now with the infant silenced, Aaron suddenly realised the seriousness of his acts. In a panic he lifted the toddler onto a bed and attempted to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Lisa also panicked and ran to the neighbours for help.
Eventually Aaron was 'brought to book' at the Wollongong Supreme Court on 9.2.93. At this time, plea bargaining was attempted: Aaron's barrister intimated to police that his client would plead 'guilty' to the reduced charge of manslaughter because, he said, the Crown had not fully considered Aaron's state of sobriety at the time the crime was committed. This submission was put to the Crown, but to their credit they stuck to the charge laid and the jury eventually found him guilty of murder. I'm told that, although he did in fact use drunkenness as an excuse for his actions that night, the jury was swayed by all the instructions he was still able to give the taxi driver to take him to the Wollongong address.
A month later, Justice Jane Mathews sentenced Aaron to serve a minimum term of ten years and six months from the day he was arrested in 1991, with an additional term of six years and six months if he does not conform, thus making a maximum possible total of seventeen years.
Shortly after the trial, The Police Commissioner, presented Detectives' Wheeler, Boyd and Doherty with separate, speciallyframed, 'Commissioner's Commendation Awards', at a ceremony in Parliament House. Just prior to the presentations Mr Lauer said that the awards were in recognition of outstanding police investigations which overthrew initial medical opinions that a baby had died accidentally.
Although alcohol may have played a major role in this tragedy, it appears to me that other contributing factors were involved. For example, Corey, was the much loved, little whitehaired boy in Lisa's family and the 'apple' in his grandfather's eye. I've been told that shortly after Aaron arrived on the scene a tension built up between him and Lisa's father, mainly over Aaron's attitude towards Corey. This was, in fact, the overriding reason why Aaron eventually moved out of Lisa's family home and went to Wollongong to live.
Ironically, once Lisa had packed her bags and followed him there this protective umbrella was instantly removed. Now, if you couple this fact, with a teenager like Aaron (who has already displayed violent behavioural patterns towards his de facto) and mix in a little natural jealousy he might possess towards Corey (his stepson) and even Aaron junior (his real son) the die is cast for a potentially dangerous situation.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the following police (listed alphabetically) whose dedicated efforts, assisted in bringing this case to a successful end: Stephen Boyd, Barry Doherty, Jan Etling, John Greenaway, Patrick Hannan, Belinda Hardy, Bradley Lawton, Michael Le Breton, John Mason, Phillip O'Neil, Andrew Royan, Dallas Stirton and Graeme Wheeler.
Moreover, I must especially thank Detective Sergeant Graeme Wheeler for his invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article and for supplying the necessary photographs.
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